[Julie Elliott in the Chair]
[Relevant Documents: e-petition 582336, Ban Water Companies discharging raw sewage into water courses.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered sewage discharges.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I thank all colleagues who are here to debate this important issue. I also thank the public and the e-petitioners for driving us to seek this change. I welcome the Minister to her place, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, for everything he has done on this matter. Many hon. Members wish to speak, so I will try to limit interventions. I recognise that there is a Minister here—my right hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman)—who cannot make a speech, and I hope some of these words will apply to him.
Let me illustrate why I sought this debate. As of 16 September, on nine out of the 16 days of the month Bexhill’s beach had been issued with a pollution risk warning and signs warning against bathing because of the risk of sewage discharge. On 18 August, a fault at a pumping station at Galley Hill caused a discharge of waste water, and sewage was pumped into the Bexhill coastline. It lasted for two and a half hours, starting at 2.59 pm, and bathers were not warned about what was occurring until early evening. In the settlement of Heathfield, residents at the bottom of the hill are up to their knees in discharge when heavy rain comes. That has led to rat infestations, illness for children and pets and contamination of homes and gardens.
Our sewerage system is not fit for purpose, and yet we keep building homes in these areas and making the situation worse. Much of our nation is covered by combined sewerage systems comprising hundreds of thousands of miles of sewers. When those systems cannot cope with the volume, rather than back up into properties, they discharge into our seas, our rivers and our waterways from approximately 15,000 combined sewer overflows. The practice is disgusting. Last year, there were more than 370,000 monitored spill events. Every discharge impacts our environment and our marine life, and our ability to enjoy it and make a living from it. This can no longer be tolerated.
Successive Governments have failed to tackle the issue, going back to the 19th century when much of the combined sewerage system was installed, although I welcome the Government’s latest steps to tackle the problem. Our job is to find solutions. With that in mind, I have four issues that I wish to touch on, and I will ask the Minister a number of questions.
The first issue is the storm overflow discharge reduction plan. I welcome the concept, but we could be more ambitious with the deadlines to eradicate storm overflows. The plan relies on data being correctly and fully recorded. Many citizen scientists, for whom we should all be very grateful, believe that the discharges are not fully recorded. I therefore ask the Minister the following questions. Given concerns about under-reporting, is she confident that the discharge data is accurate?
The event and duration of overflow discharges is monitored, but not the volume and impact. The Environmental Audit Committee recommended the installation of volume monitors on overflows. Will the new Minister explain why the Department rejected that recommendation?
Given that the 2035 and 2050 targets have been criticised for lacking sufficient ambition and urgency, will the Minister consider allowing Ofwat to permit sewage companies to deliver their improvement plans earlier and to higher standards? Southern Water, in the area I represent, aims to meet the storm overflow targets, but it would hit 80% by 2030, rather than 75% by 2035, which is the Government’s target.
The second issue is bathing water testing and quality. To use an example local to me, Bexhill’s bathing water quality is rated sufficient. There was a concern recently that it would drop to poor. The town comprises 40,000 people, and that number swells during tourist season. To assess water quality, testing occurs weekly between May and September. It is tested at different times of the day, but always in the same place in the sea. I am told that the water is tested in the busiest part of the beach, but our beach has no focal point and surely a wider area of bathing water should be tested. We are adjacent to excellent bathing water at St Leonards, so swimmers cross from excellent to sufficient in one stroke.
Every day—I am sure it is the same for other colleagues—the Environment Agency sends me pollution risk warnings. However, for many days, Bexhill has been the only beach where signs advising against bathing should be displayed. When I asked what made Bexhill unique, given that it rains across the Sussex coast, I was told that there was something particular about Bexhill and heavy rainfall. In Bexhill’s case, the testing place is adjacent to an outlet coming from a stream, which is the responsibility of the Environment Agency. In three years in which the agency has tested sub-optimal bathing water, Southern Water’s own testing in the immediate vicinity has come up clear on the same day.
Many suspect that heavy rainwater is coming from the highways into the stream and then entering the sea. That may or may not be the cause of the low bathing water quality. However, the fact that we do not know why our bathing water is only just sufficient tells us that we do not know enough about what is going on and therefore we do not know how to clean things up.
Does the Minister believe that it would be more optimal to test water quality on different parts of the beach and on a continuous basis? Given that the bathing water testing regime is some 30 years old, does she believe that the Environment Agency’s testing takes into account the latest pollutants, such as plastics, and gives an adequate reading of our bathing waters? Will the storm overflow discharge reduction plan prioritise busy bathing areas, such as Bexhill, which have bathing quality status below excellent or good?
The third issue is the impact from roads and house building. I will refer to the experience of residents in Heathfield, who have been blighted by sewage and flooding, and they still are when heavy rain comes. This is not just about the sewage companies, but about highways agencies ensuring that their drains can take heavy rainfall rather than it ending up in the combined sewer and causing a discharge or backfill. Despite this, Heathfield has more house building on top of the ridge below which these other roads sit.
On house building and roads, does the Minister believe that it is right to put the onus mainly on water companies to deliver fixes in the storm overflow discharge reduction plan, when many of these assets and the responsibility for them rest with the highways authorities? Has she considered giving the highway authorities a statutory duty to act and to maintain these assets after action has been taken, along with the funds that are to be generated for the plan? Alternatively, would she consider a prohibition on surface water from the highways entering the sewerage system? Either would reduce the chances of the combined sewer becoming overwhelmed in inclement weather. Next, will the Government commit to implement the plan for sustainable drainage systems—or SuDS, as it is known—thereby removing the automatic right to connect to the public sewer system, in order to prevent new developments from adding more surface water to the combined sewerage network?
Highways authorities can refuse to allow connection to their water courses. Will they be required to provide this access in order to avoid a situation in which developers connect to the combined sewers? Will the planning provisions in the forthcoming Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill enable further action to ensure that development takes place only where it will not put further pressure on the combined sewerage system, or will it provide local planning authorities with a justification for saying that further house building cannot take place without the establishment of separate drainage systems? Will the new planning rules allow for sewage companies to be statutory consultees on new planning applications rather than on just the local plan? My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow has a fine amendment in mind for that, and I would fully support it.
The final piece is the role of all of us—the role of the public. With more understanding of the combined sewer system and a demand that we end discharges into our waters, the public stand ready to play their part. However, many householders just do not know whether they are putting the heavy rainwater from their gutters into the sewerage system. If they did, many of them would take action to halt the flow and thereby halt the number of discharges when the system is overwhelmed. It might be cheaper to provide water butts to homes for free than to cope with an overwhelmed drainage system.
Will the Minister consider a requirement for householders to be informed if they have a combined sewerage pipe from their homes? Will she consider further financial incentives for householders to ensure that their rainwater goes into a water butt or tank, to help to reduce volume and to help when water is scarce in drier times?
I am so pleased that we are having this debate. I will end my remarks there because so many people wish to speak, and I am grateful to the Minister for the response that she will give.
As everyone can see, this is a highly subscribed debate. If everyone gets to speak—I want to try to get everybody in—they will have a minute and a half. I will have that limit informally for the first couple of speakers, but I will quickly introduce it formally if people do not stick to it.
Thank you, Ms Elliott. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing this important debate. I am speaking quickly because of the 90-second limit that has been set.
We must be clear: we are in a dirty water emergency. Only 14% of English rivers meet good ecological standards, and water companies discharged raw sewage into English waterways more than 1.2 million times between 2016 and 2021. In my own constituency of Stockport, the Rivers Trust has reported that there have been 1,089 sewage spills for a total duration of 3,487 hours. This is shocking. As water bills have increased by 40% since privatisation, £72 billion has gone to shareholders, and yet investment in improving infrastructure has decreased by 15%. People are rightly angry.
The shameful frequency of sewage discharges and the resulting damage to our most valued, delicate river habitats is wreaking havoc on our natural environment and ecology, notwithstanding the public health issues it is causing. In the north-west, recent data from the Labour party shows that our tourism and leisure spots have been devastated by 253 years’ worth of raw sewage discharge. We also know that across the region there has been a 62% increase in the number of monitored discharge hours between 2018 and 2021. That is why I was so disappointed to learn last week from a report in The Guardian that the Environment Agency knew that raw sewage was being pumped into our rivers in the north-west of England 10 years ago in 2012. I must add that the Environment Agency has had a significant funding cut over the last few years, and we must talk a lot more about that. My local company, United Utilities, has been dumping raw sewage into rivers while failing to treat the required amount of sewage stipulated in its permits.
I am conscious that other people want to speak, so I will make my last point. Between 2002 and 2018 Scottish Water, which remains publicly owned, invested on average nearly 35% more per household than private English water companies did. Meanwhile in Germany, only 5% of the water supply leaks, but in England that figure is 20%. Additionally, by the admission of the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2018, nine regional water companies had paid out 95% of their profits to shareholders between 2007 and 2016. The simple solution to this crisis is public ownership of water.
I have public sewage discharge meetings concerning my rivers. I get the water companies, the Environment Agency, the district council and the county council together, and we take verbatim minutes and agree action points. One of the key things we heard in the last meeting was that British water bills are among the lowest in Europe. If we wish to clean up our rivers, there is therefore scope to increase our water bills. The Environment Act 2021 was a wonderful piece of legislation introduced by the Government, and let us make it work. We have already heard about monitoring above and below discharges so we can see where the problem is. Publish the data so the Government get the plans and send them off to Ofwat, which can allow more investment to stop storm discharges. The worst discharges do not occur during storms, however; they happen most of the time.
The other half of this problem is farmers, and I declare my interest as a farmer. Under environment land management schemes, we have new soil quality plans to stop farmers using fertiliser in unsuitable conditions, when nitrates and phosphates run off into water. Over the 30 years for which I have been a Member of Parliament, our precious limestone rivers in the Cotswolds have become more opaque, and there are more weeds in those rivers. Our plans under the Environment Act and under the sewage reduction plan over the next 25 years, costing £56 billion, need to be sped up. That is what our constituents demand.
The only other ask I make of the Minister is to give the Environment Agency enough resources not only to police discharges, but to make prosecutions quicker and easier. That is what we need so that polluters, whoever they are, know they will be caught out and stopped. The public are demanding it and Members of Parliament, who are here in such numbers, are demanding it. We must get on and get these plans into action more quickly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this excellent debate. It is really important, and I thought he made an exceptional start.
I want to make three points. It is not really possible to articulate an argument in the time available, so I will just go through the motions. I want to mention the problem, the impact and the fundamental flaw in the water industry. The excellent Rivers Trust sewage monitoring data for 2021, which is available on the website, highlights 5,115 hours of sewage discharges in my constituency alone. That is the equivalent of 213 days of continuous sewage discharges. When sewage is dumped on 213 days out of 365, that is not an exceptional event but a persistent problem.
My constituency is fortunate because we have the east Durham heritage coast, and east Durham is home to a thriving wild swimming community. Seaham Seaside Swimmers is a local network with many hundreds of members who are passionate about health and wellbeing. Those who participate in that activity are aware of the Safer Seas and Rivers Service app, and last year there were more than 119 pollution alerts from the three combined sewage outlets in my constituency. We really must do better, and we look to the Government and the regulator to do so.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing the debate.
My Gosport constituency is a peninsula surrounded by Portsmouth harbour and the Solent’s waters, so we are a coastal community. We are also proudly protective of the ecology of the Solent. From the seagrasses to the seahorses, the flora and fauna of our coastal waters is vital to their health and sustainability, which is threatened by sewage pollution. In Stokes Bay, Lee-on-the-Solent and Hill Head, we have avid swimmers and lovers of water sports all year round, not just in the summer months.
We know that several targets have been set out for storm overflow reduction, and I welcome the new measures, but I have to express my frustration at the implied lack of urgency. The timescales are simply insufficiently ambitious. I know that storm overflows are a Victorian sewer system design feature, and I know that achieving the targets will require large and complex infrastructure projects, but water companies have made staggering profits for decades. In some cases, they have paid eye-watering fines while not sufficiently investing in infrastructure. Enough has to be enough.
Unfortunately, we regularly experience sewage outflows around our local beaches in Gosport. They do not always coincide with heavy rainfall, but the Environment Agency is only funded to deliver the requirements of the bathing water regulations by testing the waters between May and September. Therefore, if discharges occur in the winter months, the water quality is not known. I say to the Minister that our coastal ecology is affected all year round and people use the waters all year round. Can she please tell me what thought has been given to asking, and funding, the Environment Agency to check the waters all year round?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott.
Over the summer, we saw multiple news stories reporting that water companies were pumping sewage into the sea. There were numerous reports of people being warned to stay out of the water at popular beaches because of pollution risks and unsafe conditions. It is an issue that my constituents are very concerned about, particularly as I represent a coastal community. In August, the Government published their storm overflows discharge reduction plan, which requires water companies to reduce discharges into designated bathing water and high-priority nature sites by 2035, and into all sites by 2050. That simply is not good enough.
The Rivers Trust has criticised the Government’s lack of ambition and said that the plan is too little, too late, adding that it was appalled to see that the plan had not taken into account the thousands of responses to the draft consultation, which called for much more ambitious targets. It is very clear that the Government’s plan to tackle discharge just does not show the level of ambition that we need to protect and enhance the quality of our coastal waters and waterways.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott.
We have too much sewage going into our waters. This is not a new problem—everybody in the various political parties is agreed on that. I was a supporter of the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), and I am a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on chalk streams. I also have the great Letcombe brook project in my constituency, so this issue matters a great deal to me.
A lot of nonsense has been written about MPs voting to allow sewage into our waters. As the independent fact-checking website Full Fact said, that is not true: whichever way that vote last year had gone, sewage would have continued to go into our waters, because our systems are very old, we cannot change them overnight and the alternative is sewage backing up into people’s homes, which is even worse.
I welcome the Government’s Environment Act, which places a legal duty on water companies to reduce the harm from sewage discharges, and the storm overflows plan, which will unlock £56 billion to help fix the problem. I probably most welcome the increase in the maximum fine from £250,000 to £250 million; that is the sort of thing that will help the water industry to take the issue seriously. There is a whole range of problems, from leaks to sewage. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said, the public see a water industry that is
“slow to stop leaks, slow to repair them, slow to stop pollution and slow to say sorry.”
That has to change—the sooner, the better.
Thank you for chairing this debate, Ms Elliott, and I also thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing it.
We hear that there will potentially be an increase in the maximum fine. There have been only 11 prosecutions in the last four years, so we know that the real cause of anger is the failure to deal with legal discharges of sewage into our waterways, lakes and rivers. The collective profit of the water companies last year was £2.7 billion—£1 billion in shareholder dividends. The choice is not having sewage back up into people’s houses or letting it flow into our waterways, rivers, lakes and streams. The alternative is to invest those obscene profits in holding tanks to ensure that we do not get sewage outflows in the first place. [Interruption.] I hear Conservative Members muttering from sedentary positions. I wish they were as angry about sewage as they are about people campaigning against sewage.
In Windermere, the largest lake in England, there were 71 days last year when sewage was discharged legally. In Coniston, there were 112 days when sewage was discharged legally. In the River Eden, in Kirkby Stephen, there were 2,500 hours of sewage being discharged legally. In Morecambe Bay, there were 35,000 hours of sewage being discharged legally. The option here is obvious: to force the water companies to invest their profits now—not over a 20-year period—to ensure that the water in the lakes of the Lake district, the dales and the rest of the country are not polluted by sewage, so that this environmental health risk, public health risk, risk to animal welfare and risk to our economy is not allowed to continue. The Government have the power to force the water companies to take the action that they should take. We know that the water companies have the money to do it. Why are the Government not forcing them to do it now?
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman).
I have 90 seconds to make three points. First, water is not like other products; it is the single most critical resource for any society. Without it, human civilisation, even existence, is impossible. I make that point because there is a special duty on water companies to act in the public interest, and I am afraid that too often they have deliberately shielded themselves from scrutiny or used complex structures to avoid paying taxes. They have appeared more interested in financial engineering than in the civil engineering that is required.
Secondly, combined sewage overflows are not new or unique, as has powerfully been pointed out. The reality is that there are more per capita in Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. However, times have changed, and expectations have rightly changed, too. Progress is required, and it is required now.
Thirdly, the River Chelt, in my constituency, matters very much. I grew up near its source; it flows through my back garden, as it happens. I am pleased that Severn Trent Water have said to me—have given, in their words, a cast-iron assurance—that they will reduce overflows into the River Chelt by 85% by the end of 2024. That is welcome—it is essential—but if it does not deliver, I am afraid that my constituents, and constituents around the country, will take the view that the water companies are the unacceptable face of capitalism.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I am proud to represent the River Lea as part of my constituency, but in 2021 there were 27 instances of sewage discharge into the Lea—184 hours in total. That is not new: in 2019 overall the River Lea was classified as bad, failing on both chemical standards and ecological health. It is one of the most polluted rivers in the UK. Research from Thames21—an excellent charity that does work to keep our inland waterways clean—and University College London shows that the amount of faecal E. coli bacteria in the river regularly exceeds international standards. That is not a sentence that I ever thought I would have to read out, because it is shocking that that is the case. Hackney, my local council, has established the London Lea Catchment Partnership with other local councils and Thames21, to try to improve biodiversity, increase the cleanliness of the river and work to discourage swimming, Sadly, that has to be the case when we are still getting that level of discharge.
I have two key asks for the Minister. As other Members have highlighted, the sampling system has been unchanged for 25 years. It covers the May to September period. We need better and different sampling. Secondly, the Canal & River Trust does not get information or data in real time from the Environment Agency, so when it does monitor water quality there is a time lag and delay. If that could be done in real time, the Canal & River Trust and other partners such as Hackney Council could at least warn users not to use the river when it is dangerous. As other hon. Members have said, it is shocking that we have got to this stage, and we need real action now.
May I start by pleading with colleagues about the tone of this debate? We are legislators, not pollsters. When we vote, it is not an opinion poll on whether sewage is good or bad; it is about making good law that we are able to enforce.
I want to place it on record that I was proud to vote for the Environment Act. We know about the scale of the problem because we voted to put monitoring in place for the first time. We are investing £56 billion to change the infrastructure. Of course it could be done quicker, but we are making a start. We are seeing record levels of fines. Southern Water in my patch was fined over £90 million last year. I welcome the maximum possible fine being increased to £250 million—that cannot come soon enough.
I violently agree with my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), that we also need to look at our highways, house building, the concreting of driveways, and the impact that they all have on water. I would like to see the expansion of reservoirs so that they can cope with rainfall. Finally, fixing the leaks is not just about saving water, but about making sure that water is not adding to the rainfall and adding to the problem. Given the number of Conservative Members present, I hope the Minister acknowledges the importance of this issue. We want to see enforcement action taking place.
I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing this important debate. In Salford, we have had numerous incidents of sewage discharge. For example, in 2021 a sewer storm overflow at Pomona docks spilled 289 times for a total of 1,733 hours, discharging into the Manchester ship canal. It will take more than regulation and fluffy reduction targets to fix the problem.
Sadly, years of chronic underfunding of the Environment Agency and inaction by water regulator Ofwat means that there are few legal teeth to stop water companies flagrantly discharging sewage into our waterways. In my own constituency, the Court of Appeal sided with a major water company in the north-west, United Utilities, in a case brought by the Good Law Project over the legal routes available to people to challenge its discharging of sewage into the Manchester ship canal. That case means that any water company can dump sewage into waterways in England and Wales without fear of being sued in a civil court by any group—whether that is an angling club, a swimming club, a wildlife group or local residents. There is plenty that the Government can do to address the issue: properly fund environmental agencies, give environmental agencies real legal teeth for enforcement, and set more ambitious legal targets to clean up water quality. Finally, they should bring water companies into public ownership. It cannot be morally right that dividend extraction trumps investment in infrastructure.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. We need to be absolutely clear: nobody wants to see untreated sewage discharged into our rivers and seas. To suggest otherwise is quite frankly nonsense. I have the privilege of representing the wonderful constituency of St Austell and Newquay. It has two coasts, and hardly a week goes by when a constituent does not contact me about this issue.
To suggest that Conservative Members do not take this matter seriously, and at times are not angry about what is going on, is quite frankly wrong. This is the first Government to put in place a deliverable plan to address the issue and hold water companies to account. That is what we voted for, and that is what we are delivering. Yes, it could be quicker—and I know that because I had the privilege of being the Minister who launched the combined sewage discharge reduction plan. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who did most of the work on that; I just got to do the glamorous bit and launch it. It contains a review date of 2025 to look at whether the delivery of the plan can be sped up. I urge the Minister and whoever is in the hot seat when the review takes place to continue to do that.
The Government are looking at planning reform, and if there is one thing we can do to help it is to speed up the planning process for water companies that want to upgrade their sewerage systems. Removing the red tape would help deliver the plan much quicker.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. For my constituents, this issue is of significant local concern. In fact, last year, the very first visit I made as an MP was to see with my own eyes the impact of a sewage discharge at Latimer Park in my constituency.
Chesham and Amersham is home to two of the nation’s chalk streams: the River Chess and the River Misbourne. They are globally rare and locally precious, but despite their ecological significance, in 2020 and 2021 the River Chess saw a total of 175 discharges from Thames Water’s treatment works in Chesham—one of the worst figures in the country.
My constituents clearly share my disgust, as more than 1,000 of them signed the petition to ban this damaging practice, and I want to give voice to their concerns. Fortunately, I have been assured that something is about to change at a local level. This summer I met Thames Water, which outlined its plans to expand the capacity of the Chesham sewage treatment works by 40% to prevent future sewage discharges. However, as we know, storm overflows do not only take place due to a lack of capacity. Discharges frequently occur during particularly rainy periods when the rainwater run-off makes its way into the sewerage system through leaky pipes and loose manhole covers. Thames Water is looking to counter that in my constituency, and is undertaking a project to replace or reseal 750 manhole covers. I welcome that investment, and I look forward to seeing the results of its efforts, which it assures me will be completed by the end of 2023. I know I will not be the only one locally keeping a close eye on whether it meets that target.
If we are to protect our country’s rivers, similar action must be taken across the country, and quickly. The Government have assured us that such improvements will take place, but I am concerned that, under current plans, a portion of the price of the works will be paid by the public in the form of increasing water bills. The discharges occur in large part as a result of years of underinvestment and neglect by water companies. They must be held to account for the failure to maintain essential infrastructure to a functional standard. They should pay to fix it.
I will get straight to the point. For the record, this Government did not vote to allow raw sewage to be discharged into rivers. On the contrary, it was this Government, through a whole range of processes—in particular, six pages of clauses in the Environment Act 2021, which I was proud to bring through with the support of many hon. Members here—who put in place a comprehensive system for dealing with our sewage once and for all. We also set targets to reduce storm sewage overflows via the storm overflows discharge reduction plan, announced by the other former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). We hope the current Minister—I welcome her to her place—will make sure we keep to the targets. In 2025, the Government have to report on progress. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman): I think we can bring forward the 2050 target and get rid of the impact of these overflows quicker.
We have to make sure that Ofwat, the independent regulator, does its job. It has had new guidance from the Government through the strategic policy statement to put the environment at the top of the agenda and reduce storm sewage overflows. It has to use its tools better than it did before. Water company executives should not be taking large salaries unless they reflect environmental improvement.
I welcome the new fines for polluting—that is great—but please could we make that money available, via a third-party organisation such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund, to communities and farmers in the catchments where the pollution occurred? I think that would be very popular.
Finally, this is much bigger than just sewage; we have loads of other things to deal with. The cocktail of pollution in our rivers is shocking, but the Government are on it. We have set new targets for nitrogen and phosphorus soil run-off. The Minister has to report back on those targets by 31 October, so no pressure. We agreed as a Government to publish those targets, and we would like to see them come to the fore.
Can we please deal with fatbergs and bring through mandatory clear labelling on what things are flushable? The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) will probably comment on that. Finally, we need a more holistic approach to dealing with water: supply, demand, abstraction—bring it all together, Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I thank all the 111,000 people across the country who signed the petition, and the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for introducing this important debate.
Last year, 370,000 discharges of untreated sewage flowed into our English waters, including the Wandle, in my constituency, for three and a half hours on 25 August. That followed 81 sewage leaks into the Wandle in 2021. People are shocked by these sewage overflows, but the situation can be changed.
I have three points to make. First, the reason for that leak was that the storage of the Beddington sewage works overflowed, going out into the sewers. Water companies need to fast-track storage to stop overflows happening.
Secondly, my campaign to ban the use of plastic in wet wipes has had support cross-party, including from former Ministers. A consultation closed in February. Plastic is the reason why wet wipes do not disintegrate but flow through the sewers and out into the riverbed. Just yesterday, I was on the bank of the River Thames and saw all these toxic ropes formed by wet wipes that have not disintegrated because they are made of plastic. Will the Minister confirm the next steps on that public consultation, whether she supports banning plastic in wet wipes, and when that ban will be put in place?
My final point is about urgency: 2035 and 2050 are far too late. We have the worst-quality rivers in Europe. It does not have to be this way. I urge the Minister to take more action, more urgently.
My constituency of South Cambridgeshire is home to many beautiful chalk streams: the Mel, the Shep, the Rhee—I played in them as a kid. That is why the issue of sewage discharges is so important to me and my constituents. It is clear that sewage discharges are completely unacceptable. We must do everything we can to tackle them.
I fully support the measures that the Government took in the Environment Act 2021 to tackle them. I note that the Opposition parties all voted against the one piece of legislation to reduce sewage discharges—we will have to ask them why they voted that way. I welcome the fact that the Government have increased the maximum fine from £250,000 to £250 million, but I have a suggestion to go further, and I have made this point previously in the Chamber.
Ofwat is doing a consultation on financial resilience, which includes looking at dividend payments and tying that to environmental performance. I have written to the chief executive of Ofwat, David Black, to suggest that he goes even further and considers tying bonus payments of senior managers and dividend payments to environmental performance. In particular, if a water company is fined for illegal sewage discharges, it should not be able to pay dividends to its shareholders that year or to pay bonuses to its senior manager. Bankers lose their bonuses for breaking the law, and so should senior water executives. I urge the Minister to consider taking that forward.
Finally, the constituency of South Cambridgeshire as among the highest levels of house building in the country. That has been massively pushed by the local Liberal Democrats, who are trying to build far more than the Government think is necessary. All those houses produce sewage, and all that sewage increases discharges into our local rivers.
I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for introducing this debate. I share the anger of many constituents, Members and the petitioners at the actions of water companies as they continue to pump sewage into our rivers and seas.
As another riparian MP, I know how important the Thames is—it gives space for rowing, paddleboarding and kayaking. It helps local businesses such as boat companies to thrive and it supports wildlife and our natural environment. Thames Water pumps raw sewage into the Thames every time it rains more than a drizzle. Last year, over two days it pumped 2 billion litres into the Thames. It came from Mogden sewage treatment works in my constituency, which has released raw sewage 45 times already this year.
I have challenged Thames Water about odour, mosquitos and sewage discharges over the 25 years that I was councillor and the seven and a half years I have been an MP. On 31 January 2021, my constituency saw at first hand the impact of a chronic lack of investment in sewage infrastructure. When the brick wall of the sewage inlet at Mogden collapsed, sewage spilled into the pristine Duke of Northumberland’s river, then into surrounding homes and parks in Isleworth, and then into the Thames.
We have seen a decade of failure from successive Conservative Governments. When the Prime Minister was Environment Secretary, she had a near puritanical obsession with cheese and pork, but what about sewage? She did not have a single meeting with water companies to discuss their performance on sewage spills, but she found time to push through savage cuts to the Environment Agency and to its enforcement and monitoring work, which is a disgrace. People across the country are rightfully angry. This has been a systematic failure, a failure by Ofwat and a failure by successive Conservative Governments over a decade.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), and the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) for their superb campaigning on this issue. This is a hidden scandal, and it is frankly deeply shocking.
In South West Surrey last year, we had nine sewer storm overflows in Godalming, nine in Grayswood, 12 in Bramley, 29 in Farnham and 76 in Chiddingfold. Taken together, they amount to 24 hours a day of sewage storm overflows for 65 days in a row—two whole months. It is morally indefensible to pollute our environment in that way.
We know the answers, which have been spoken about eloquently today. In particular, we need investment in more wastewater and rainwater capacity, the proper measuring of phosphate levels, the banning of plastic wet wipes, which I support absolutely, and changes to the planning rules. The Government have done a great deal on the issue, and it is a shame that we were not able to do more when we were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats a decade ago.
Two thousand people responded to my survey on the issue, and 94% of them signed a petition to the water companies. What all of us want is a timetable, so that we can see tangible progress on cleaning up our rivers, saving our fish and boosting biodiversity in our precious countryside.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on securing this important debate.
I pay tribute to everyone who took to beaches across the south of England this weekend in protest at the deplorable condition of our beaches and rivers. At Bexhill beach, in the hon. Member’s constituency, wild swimmers came together to form a human wave. Meanwhile, in Whitstable, local campaigners cordoned off Tankerton beach and declared it a crime scene. They were distinctly British protests, and people had the right to be angry.
Even if Ofwat is content to turn a blind eye, a crime is being committed—not just against our precious natural environment, but against all those who depend on our nation’s waters for their livelihoods, leisure and mental wellbeing. For far too long, the water monopolies have been allowed to treat our rivers and coastal waters as open sewers. Since 2016, more than 1 million sewage spills have been recorded, which is one every two and a half minutes. That is the equivalent of more than 1,000 years of raw sewage. Britain is once again the dirty man of Europe.
In my constituency, more than 650 sewage spills were recorded last year, with thousands more along the length of the Mersey. That is dealing a grievous blow to the decades-long effort to improve water quality in our region and undermining the ability of working-class families in Birkenhead to enjoy some of our borough’s best beauty spots.
The blame for the unfolding ecological catastrophe lies squarely with the water monopolies which, since the privatisation of the water industry in 1989, have hiked up bills by 40% on average in real terms while paying £57 billion in shareholder dividends that could have gone towards making much-needed improvements in infrastructure. However, we must not forget the essential role that this Government have played as an accessory to the crime.
Water companies such as United Utilities in my region would surely never have acted with such disregard for their obligations towards our natural environment had they not been guaranteed that successive Conservative Environment Secretaries would simply look the other way. Indeed, the Prime Minister served for two years as Environment Secretary—
My congratulations to my office neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). I will make a few quick points, because I agree with virtually everything that has been said—apart from what the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) just said.
The Minister, in her response, needs to reassure us that she will be looking at the water quality target work done over the past year. That is due to be published shortly. She needs to ensure that it dovetails with what is in the Environment Act 2021, in order to ensure that the results of the self-monitoring called for by many Members upstream and downstream of the storm overflows are made available to the water companies, the Environment Agency and the public, so that we can all know the quality of the water we are visiting.
Secondly, I hope the Minister will speak to her colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities as the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill goes through, so that we can ensure that the necessary measures, as highlighted by the former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who has done so much work on these issues, can be properly brought into effect in legislation as required. That includes, for example, making water companies statutory consultees for large developments that might impact on a treatment or supply location. At present they are not, other than through the local plans.
Finally, when the Minister looks at the implementation of drainage management plans by water companies, I urge her to recognise that there is the possibility for some companies to go further and faster with those plans? Will she encourage them to do so, as Severn Trent did when it decided to replace the main sewer in Mansfield as part of the green recovery plan funding last summer?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I congratulate my constituency next door neighbour and parliamentary colleague my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). This debate shows that there is a clear need for action, and it has more than done justice to the issue. I want to echo the call for an informed, responsible debate.
I represent the beautiful coastal community of Eastbourne, and tourism is our mainstay. Genuinely, this last summer, local people said to me that they would not take their lives in their hands by swimming in the sea. However, they are stunned when I tell them of the reality around our situation—that our bathing water quality is actually good, touching on excellent, and that a live Government-funded and county council-delivered project called Blue Heart is going to get us to that excellent rating.
People are equally surprised to learn, having looked at the social media discharge on this subject, that 95% of our discharge is actually rainwater. They are also surprised to learn that, since 2017, Southern Water has redirected any dividends back into the business and has not paid out those profits. They are equally surprised when I say that, while the international standard for “good” is set at 70, the UK sits at 74. That is better than Germany and France, and we are chasing the Scandinavian countries, which do these things rather better.
It is really important for communities such as mine that this debate is grounded in responsible, informed discussion. I echo the sense of urgency. I asked the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in May whether the bathing season could be extended all year round, and I very much hope that that will be the case and that monitoring will likewise be all year round.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I wish to put on record the deeply felt frustrations of many residents in Hastings and Rye, who rightly expect clean rivers and seas, as we all do. I strongly welcome this debate, secured by my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who spoke passionately and persuasively about the sewage discharge issues facing local people in East Sussex and about the responsibility of Government, water companies, highways organisations and the Environment Agency in dealing with them.
While some try to use the issue to score political points, this Government have taken extensive steps to ensure that we have clean water and a fully costed, affordable plan. After all, it is measures introduced by a Conservative-led Government that mean that the true extent of this issue is now better understood. Comprehensive measures have been put in place, and I urge the Government to do what they can to ramp up the pace of change. It is easy to play student politics with an issue such as this, and to shout and demand action without having a real plan, but working with all stakeholders—local, regional and national—is a pre-requisite to progress.
We can all do our bit by helping to reduce surface water, meaning rainwater, from entering the sewage pipes and to reduce what we put down our loos and kitchen sinks—cooking fat, wet wipes and such. Local solutions are key, and we should make greater use of nature-based solutions to reduce water surface run-off: water attenuation plans, swales, tree-planting, household water butts, permeable paving, grey water storage tanks in new developments and so on. If we work with all stakeholders and put local solutions into practice, that will, alongside central Government action through the Environment Act, begin to make a real, positive and long-lasting difference to our ability to reduce our reliance on sewage discharge.
It is a pleasure to serve under you chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for bring this important debate to the Chamber. Over 1,200 of my constituents responded to the petition—the third highest number from any constituency—but I would argue that that is a drop in the ocean compared with the feeling on the ground.
I welcome the excellent work done by various Ministers and former Ministers; it is this Government who are driving forward this agenda, which for many years has been ignored. As someone who has been closely involved locally in this issue for the last two years, working with the community, Thames Water and the Environment Agency, I know that a lot of people on the ground are willing and able to significantly improve the quality of life of my constituents. I urge the Minister to continue to build on the work of the excellent new Secretary of State by putting the feet of Ofwat and the Environment Agency to the coals to ensure that they understand how important this issue is on both sides of this House and, more importantly, to our communities.
In South West Hertfordshire, I have the Grand Union canal and the River Chess, which are unfortunately frequent flyers in this respect. Comments have been made about illegal sewage treatment releases, but there have consistently been legal sewage treatment releases, which have caused even more offence to my constituents. Hopefully the Minister will appreciate my emotion; all I am doing is sharing what my constituents feed back to me.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliot. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing this speed debate. I will make four points. One, which has already been alluded to, is that the impact of storm overflows on coastal communities must be recognised and prioritised by the Government and water companies.
In Southend we have seven miles of beaches, which attract 7 million visitors a year, although the most important visitor every single day—I am stealing a line from my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell)—is the sea. We have the Thames, which is the lifeblood of our local economy and supports our thousand-year-old fishing and cockle industries. We also have one of the most environmentally protected foreshores in the country, and, of course, our local economy.
That is why it is so outrageous that, last year, in Southend alone, sewage was pumped into the sea 48 times, for more than 251 hours. That is more than 10 whole days. On top of that, being at the end of the Thames, we get the 39 million tonnes of sewage dumped into the Thames every single year. Coastal communities are a special case.
Point No.2 is that the water companies need to do far more. Of course, I recognise and welcome that the Government have taken steps to tackle the problem through the storm overflow reduction plan. However, Southenders cannot wait until 2035 for the use of storm overflows to be eliminated in Southend West. Most importantly and immediately, Anglian Water must better inform residents when there has been a recent pollution incident from one of our five storm overflows. The data and technology are there; the water companies must use them.
Thirdly—I may not get to my fourth point—we can all do our bit, as has been said very fluently this afternoon. One of the main causes of storm overflows being used is blockages caused by non-flushable wet wipes. There are 370,000 blockages a year, which cost bill payers £100 million to sort out. Will the Minister agree to support the brilliant Conservative Environment Network campaign for a mandatory clear labelling system for commonly flushed items such as wet wipes? Just because things might be biodegradable—and wet wipes are not—that does not mean they are flushable. I will not carry on with my fourth point.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing this debate; it is clearly much needed. I thank the 278 of my constituents who signed the petition and helped to bring this debate here today.
Last Saturday morning, hundreds of residents gathered at Gyllyngvase beach in Falmouth to attend an anti-sewage pollution protest. In Falmouth, we have had enough. This is affecting people’s lives and businesses, and it is not just in Falmouth; it is happening all over my constituency. In Cornwall, we do not just look at the waterways—we use them for recreation, we use them to fish for a living, we use them for exercise, and we swim in them. I have one of the world’s most sustainable fisheries on the River Fal, and we have a duty of care to protect that fishery and give it the best chance of life.
One of the most shocking figures I saw was that one storm overflow spilled 355 times, for almost 7,500 hours in our River Fal. Some simple maths shows that that particular outlet was discharging sewage for the equivalent of 312 days. Just imagine for a moment that sewage was being discharged all day and all night for 312 days in a calendar year. That did not literally happen, but it kind of did.
I recently met South West Water on site in Portloe, a beautiful, picturesque fishing village, to talk about the raw sewage overflow there. When the system overflows, as it often does in the summer, it squirts sewage up into the air and on to the foreshore, which is horrendous. It should not take the intervention of the local MP before something is done about that. Something has to change.
I have had the great privilege of sitting on the Environmental Audit Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), and we have done some great work on this. I pay tribute to the work he has led—I have only been a small part of it. I work locally with people and stakeholders to do what we can to clear up the River Fal, in particular, and it is not just about the storm overflows; all sorts of other things go into the river. After two and a half years as an MP and much longer campaigning on this issue, I believe we really must do better. I have run out of time, so I will sit down.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I commend you on getting so many speakers in, and I commend the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing the debate.
We have heard about the key issues regarding sewage discharges. I am in a unique position, in that I am the only MP in the current Parliament who is a sewerage civil engineer. I have designed combined sewer overflows and sewer flood alleviation schemes, so hopefully I can add some insight. I worked in the water industry from 1993 until my election in 2015. In my early days as a graduate engineer, I saw at first hand how the Tories resisted implementation of EU legislation, which left the UK with a massive catch-up in terms of cleaning up the beaches and getting rid of the “dirty man of Europe” moniker. I hope we do not see a return to that south of the border.
In those early days, as with the privatisation of the railways, the Tories argued that privatising the water companies had magically created investment and improved performance. The reality is that it was nothing to do with privatisation, but resulted from the requirement to comply with the EU bathing water directive and urban waste water treatment directive and allowing the water companies to borrow money. The fact that Scotland maintained public ownership of the water companies that would eventually become Scottish Water is proof that compliance and investment can be achieved without the need to privatise.
Since privatisation, English water companies have paid out nearly £60 billion in dividends. That money should be reinvested into upgrading infrastructure. It is effectively a £2 billion-a-year subsidy from water bill payers to hedge funds and asset management companies. It is also worth pointing out that bills in Scotland are lower than those in England and Wales.
It might not be popular or widely understood, although some Members did touch on it, but combined sewer overflows are required to protect the sewer system and prevent widespread flooding of roads and buildings. Nothing can be worse than houses being internally flooded by sewage, with people having to move out of their houses—which are left stinking and needing clean-up—and fearing that the same will happen every time it rains. The reality is that combined sewer overflows are required. Combined sewers are designed to take a one in 30-year storm so, by default, any storm greater than that will exceed the capacity of the system. That is why relief is required, but due to developments over the years, we need combined sewer overflows to provide relief from storms with return periods of much less than one in 30 years.
We have heard talk about elimination of storm overflows altogether and about a 2050 target. All the water companies are saying that they can do it. I do not think that is a realistic proposition. To eliminate CSOs altogether, we would need to completely separate surface water from the combined sewers. That means disconnecting all the road drains that are connected. It means disconnecting roof drainage. Hon. Members have suggested butts to deal with that, but they would still have to be disconnected from the sewers. Private surface water connections would also have to be identified because people drain their driveways or gardens and connect them into their own combined drain. All that needs to be identified and eliminated, so I would urge the Minister to think carefully about the practicalities of what is required. We would need massive new surface water sewers and pumping stations and, as I say, there would be disruption in many roads and streets throughout the country.
I have said that CSOs are a requirement, but they need to be well designed. They need to be designed so that they do not have a detrimental impact on water quality. From what we have heard today, that is not happening, so that needs to be addressed. It is obvious that this has not been the case in practice by private water companies over the years. Private Eye has long highlighted exemptions that were applied to discharges post privatisation. It was a “get out of jail free” card for a lot of companies. It is obvious that there is insufficient operational maintenance, and the reason is clear: they are making profit by cutting running costs. Not enough is spent on maintenance, and that is why we have heard about pumping stations failing and then discharging into rivers and seas.
The worst company, according to the Financial Times, was Southern Water. Historically, it was close to defaulting on its loans and now with Macquarie at the helm, debt has risen to £6 billion and Southern Water’s risk profile is deemed to be at risk of a credit rating downgrade as a result of poor operational performance. It should be pointed out that Macquarie was allowed to take over Southern Water despite Ofwat highlighting poor performance at Thames Water, so there are serious questions about that ownership.
While the focus rightly has been on the shocking discharges of sewage into rivers and coastlines, and obviously on criticism of the performance of water companies, there is one big issue that I want to touch on, which it seems the Tory Government have been blind to. The elephant in the room, which was touched on slightly by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, is the right to connect for developers in England and Wales. This means that a statutory water company cannot refuse a developer permission to connect to a sewer. It is effectively a right for a housing developer to pollute the environment, which is disgraceful.
The issue goes back to failings in the Water Industry Act 1991 and was confirmed in a Supreme Court case between Barratt Homes Ltd and Welsh Water in December 2009. Welsh Water had tried to prevent a developer connecting to an overloaded sewer, but Barratt effectively forced its right in law to connect to that sewer, and that has now been put down in law. It means that any responsible water company that is implementing improvements to a system can see all that good work and all the environmental benefits wiped out because a developer can, in theory, connect hundreds or even thousands of houses to the sewer, which obviously will then destroy any upgrades that have happened.
A key question for Back-Bench Tories to consider is, why have the UK Government not acted to resolve this loophole, which was put in law in 2009? Is it because they are too cosy with house builders? Is it because they fear it will impact house-building targets? It needs to be addressed soon. In Scotland, the law is clear via the Sewerage (Scotland) Act 1968. Any developer has to apply for permission to connect to the sewer system. If the assessment deems that a new connection will cause detriment to the sewer system, that developer has to pay for the remedial works to ensure there is no detriment to it. That means that housing developers have to take it on the chin and pay for upgrades. Quite often, they have to fund large volumes of storage, but they know that is the process and they deal with it. That is a process I have been involved in. I know how well it works, and that makes it even more incredible that it has not been adopted in England. I urge the Minister to think carefully about the right to connect.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle touched on sustainable urban drainage. Again, Scotland has led the way in that regard; such drainage has been part of regulations for the best part of 20 years. Not only does a developer have to apply for the right to connect to a sewer; they have to implement sustainable urban drainage schemes, so that there is not additional surface water going into our combined sewer system. Once more, that should be in the regulations. In Scotland, Scottish Water is a statutory consultee in the planning process, which is something else that the Minister should consider, as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle suggested.
The Minister and the Secretary of State can demand drainage improvement plans and they can talk tough on fines, but the reality is that if the right to connect issue is not resolved, all that talk counts for nothing, because developers will continue to connect to sewers, overloading them and causing problems. Hopefully the Minister can address that point as well as the other points that have been made.
First, I congratulate you, Ms Elliott, on the way that you have chaired this debate and on getting everybody in, which has been excellent. What a task!
Secondly, I welcome the Minister, because this is the first time I have debated with her. She is the third Minister I have shadowed since I became the shadow Minister last December; I am quickly running through Ministers. However, I would not say that I am a veteran, because the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), has spent many more years on this subject than I have, as we just found out.
I thank the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) for reminding us that section 1 of the Environment Act 2021 legally requires the Secretary of State to set long-term targets for air, water, biodiversity, resource efficiency and waste reduction, and that section 4 requires the statutory instrument to be laid by 31 October. I reinforce her question about whether that requirement will be met in the next 19 days. I would welcome an early opportunity to sit in a Committee to consider that SI with the Minister. Perhaps some former Ministers would like to be on that Committee too.
I come now to the pressing issue of the day. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. It is such an important and timely debate. He rightly said that Sussex beaches regularly see sewage being discharged into bathing water, as do coastal communities up and down the country.
Something that has not really been explored in the debate before now is how coastal businesses are affected, particularly leisure and tourism businesses. I was formerly the shadow Minister with responsibility for tourism and I have seen directly how badly coastal discharges and poor water quality can wipe out a day’s business in the summer, and businesses have already had so many shocks recently.
There is clearly wide interest in this issue right across the country, as can be seen from the number of speakers in this debate, who come from every region and nation. That shows how widespread the problem is. So many Members have cited shocking sewage outflow and spill figures. This is an issue that we probably need to explore further in other debates.
The Secretary of State says that we need our watercourses and beaches to be safe and sewage free. Although I of course agree with him wholeheartedly, the reality is that the Government’s policies will be no more than a drop in the ocean when it comes to dealing with what the media—not we in the Opposition, but the media—are now calling “a Tory stink”.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Environment Act 2021 does not apply to Wales, where his party is in government and where there is no equivalent legislation forcing Welsh Water Dŵr Cymru to act. The Government are taking action in England. Will he tell me why his party is not taking equivalent action in Wales?
Of course, there are not any shareholders in Welsh Water; it is owned by the people of Wales. On some of these issues, Welsh Water is performing exceedingly well as a water company. The hon. Lady knows that this is a devolved matter, so I will not comment any further on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) made an excellent point about faecal E. coli and how that affects human and animal health. In my constituency, people have basically had to swim through sewage and dogs have unfortunately passed away because of exposure to it.
Over the last six years, Tory Governments have allowed a million discharges of raw human sewage into our watercourses. Last year, they were given an opportunity to place legal duties on companies to reduce discharges. It was just that—legal duties to reduce discharges. I know that there has been a lot of heat in this debate about this matter. The Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), was involved in that and he made an excellent speech today, as usual. Most of the MPs on the Government side voted against it, but I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle and others present for being among the 22 Conservative MPs who voted with us for the amendment. There will be future opportunities to bring in that legal duty—if not in this Parliament, I certainly hope in the next one, when we will have a change of Government.
It is naive to think that these watered-down policies will be enough to end the epidemic that we currently face—an epidemic in which there is a sewage spill every two and a half minutes. We have been in this debate long enough for at least 30 spills. Crucially, if a spill is not monitored, a fine cannot be issued. Water bosses will continue to get off scot-free, with no incentive to install comprehensive monitoring. Yes, some discharges come as the result of storm overflows, but we know that others are a deliberate corner-cutting exercise by water companies that prioritise profit over the natural environment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said that our rivers are now open sewers, and he is right. He made the excellent point that water companies are monopolies, but the Government treat water like a market. By contrast, the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), has clearly outlined Labour’s strategy for cleaning up our waterways. Under a Labour Government, there will be no hiding the problem. We will ensure that there are mandatory monitors on all outlets—every sewage works—and introduce automatic standing charges where this requirement has not yet been met. We will ensure that we get the real-time data that a number of Members have called for, and give the Environment Agency the power and resources to properly enforce the rules.
Again, I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle for securing the debate, and I urge him to consider whether the current Government and his party are genuinely committed to dealing with the crisis. Are they serious about stopping more sewage releases on to Sussex beaches, Bexhill beach and beaches around the country, or are they simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic while water bosses laugh all the way to the bank? Some £72 billion in dividends has been given to those water bosses over the lifetime of the companies. These are the bosses who fail to properly invest in our water infrastructure yet still receive enormous payments and bonuses, all paid for by the customers—our constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) made the point that many of our sewage treatment plants have insufficient storage. The current minimum storage that the Environment Agency stipulates is probably insufficient and, in many cases, is being breached. We need to see significant infrastructure investment in that storage, which will reduce overflows. My hon. Friend has also been a doughty champion of banning plastic wet wipes. When will we see that legislation introduced? I hope the Minister responds to her on that.
The Government make grand environmental claims, yet the Prime Minister did not bother to meet a single water company to discuss sewage spills during her time as a DEFRA Minister. Instead, she allowed water bosses free rein while cutting the DEFRA budget by £24 million, which could have been used for monitoring raw sewage. We saw sewage-dumping events skyrocket into the millions during that period. When Labour comes back into government, we will hold water bosses personally accountable. We will strike off directors who fail, and even introduce prison sentences for the most serious crimes. The Government have increased the fines, but we will introduce unlimited fines and cap bill increases to protect our most vulnerable citizens.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) made an excellent point when he said that we are seeing dividends being given out, debt being built up and our constituents’ bills going through the roof. I know that his water company has increased them significantly. Labour will ensure that any failure to improve is paid for by eroding dividends, not by adding to customers’ bills or cutting investment. We will fix the broken system whereby water companies rake it in while neglecting their customers and the environment.
Which plan will better protect beaches from sewage spills: ours or the current Government’s? How can we trust the Government to clean up our water, when their track record is one of allowing our rivers and beaches to be treated as open sewers? Only Labour can clean up our water. We will introduce a legally binding target to end 90% of sewage discharges by 2030, taking every necessary step to ensure a fairer, greener future for everyone.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in my position in DEFRA, Ms Elliott. I thank all colleagues for showing such interest in and passion about a subject that I know we all care deeply about. Most of all, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing the debate.
I also pay tribute to the two Ministers who were unable to speak in the debate but have listened intently: the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) and the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman). I am very grateful for support.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the two previous Ministers who have done so much in this area: my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and, of course, my wonderful predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebeccab Pow), to whom I pay particular thanks. They have not only taken up this issue professionally as Ministers, but campaigned pretty much their entire lives on it. That hard work has paid dividends: I am able to stand here today and talk about the improvements that this Government have made, and the pragmatic steps that enable monitoring. It is uncomfortable to hear the results of that monitoring, but without it we would not know where or how much we need to improve. To put some numbers on that monitoring, we have improved the systems from 5% in 2016 to 90% today—a tremendous improvement.
We are absolutely clear that we will not tolerate the failure of water companies to reduce the amount of storm sewage discharges. It is completely unacceptable. When it rains heavily, as has been discussed today, rainwater lands on roofs and impermeable surfaces. It is uncharacteristic of me to agree so much with the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), but he has experience in this particular sector. We recognise that combined sewers are part of the problem, particularly during heavy precipitation, when all of that run-off from non-permeable surfaces flows with the foul water into the sewage treatment plant. We hold water companies to account for improving that situation, for splitting those systems and for a whole raft of other infrastructure changes, but that will take time.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) raised the possibility of water companies being statutory consultees when planning applications that add pressure to existing sewerage systems are made. Had they been so, developments in Weston, in my constituency, that will put unbearable pressure on the existing drainage and sewerage system would not have gone ahead.
My right hon. Friend raises an excellent point. Reforms are taking place in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to look at the plethora of opportunities for speeding up some of those planning processes, with no regression in environmental protections. He raises the issue of nitrogen and phosphates in our water system. Nutrient neutrality has caused significant delays—in fact, entire blockages—for many house builders across the country. That is exactly why we are coming up with systems to ensure that those developers contribute to environmental processes that improve the reduction of nitrogen and phosphorous in water, and enable those developments to go ahead.
I have talked about the challenge of combined sewers. The options are both intolerable as long-term solutions: either to allow water, including foul water, to back up the system, flooding into people’s homes and businesses—I was flooded, and I agree with other Members that it is an incredibly unpleasant situation to be in—or to discharge sewage into watercourses. Neither of those options is acceptable or tolerable.
In August, the Government published the storm overflows discharge reduction plan, which found that achieving complete elimination could cost up to £600 billion and increase annual water bills by up to £817 by 2049. It would also be, as suggested by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, highly disruptive and complex to deliver nationwide. Our storm overflow discharge reduction plan will see £56 billion in capital investment by 2050—the largest infrastructure programme in water company history. By 2035, water companies will have to improve all storm overflows discharging into or near every designated bathing water, and improve 75% of overflows discharging into high-priority nature sites. By 2050, that will apply to all remaining storm overflows covered by our targets regardless of their location.
There has been some talk about the Environment Agency being resourced to be able to carry out that role. DEFRA and its agencies received £4.3 billion in the 2021 spending review to do more to tackle climate change and protect our environment for future generations. In terms of the response to Ofwat, Ofwat’s investigations will consider how overall companies operate, manage their sewage treatment works and report on their performance where the investigations can find failings on obligations. Ofwat is responsible for enforcing; it will use its full range of powers accordingly to hold companies to account for their failures, and to require them to put things right in short order.
The subject of sewage also brought to the fore the Thames tideway tunnel, which is a £1.9 billion investment. Once operational and taken together with the other improvements, it will achieve a 95% reduction in the annual volume of untreated waste water entering the tidal Thames.
Could the Minister please remember that tideway starts downstream of Mogden sewage works, which is the second largest sewage treatment works in Greater London and, I believe, in the country. None of the sewage discharges from Mogden will be captured by tideway.
I am happy to pick that up separately. I have not got time to go into the detail now, but I would be delighted to have a meeting with the hon. Member to go into that in the future.
The Secretary of State made our commitment to tackling sewage discharges absolutely clear on his very first day in office. He held a call with water companies’ chief executives, and we are now working with them to explore the acceleration of infrastructure projects. Water companies are investing £3.1 billion to deliver the 800 storm overflow improvements across England by 2025, but if we can go further and faster we will. The Secretary of State and myself are challenging those water companies to come up with acceleration plans to clean our water system and ensure we have the infrastructure and the supply for the future. We have also recently announced that we will bring forward plans to increase the amount that the Environment Agency can directly fine water companies that pollute the environment by a thousandfold, from £250,000 up to £250 million.
Will the Minister going to invest in the right to connection issue because at the moment, as an outline, housing developers can connect a sewer, overload it and cause pollution; that must be cleaned up and paid for by other billpayers instead of the housing developer, which is making money and moving on. It is a critical issue that needs to be addressed.
There was also reference to privatisation. There has been over £30 billion of investment in the environment by the water industry since privatisation. The improvements in sewage treatments since 1995 have secured significant environmental benefits, such as a reduction in leakage by a third since 1990. Some 70% of UK beaches are now classed as excellent, and customers are now five times less likely to suffer from supply interruption since privatisation. In the 1990s, water and sewage companies were responsible for over 500 serious incidents per year; in 2021, that number was reduced to 62. Of course, that is 62 too many, but it is a significant reduction. Sewage treatment works are now discharging much lower amounts of harmful chemicals into our rivers, including 67% less phosphorus and 79% less ammonia than in 1995.
The more rainwater that can be captured before it goes into a drain, the better. That has been echoed by Members in Westminster Hall today. The more we can separate the run-off and foul water in the network, the better. When one in 10 people does not have access to clean water close to home, access to the purest quality drinking water is something to cherish every single time we turn on the tap. However, average water use is around 145 litres per person in England and Wales, compared to 121 litres in neighbouring countries. We can all play our part by using water more efficiently in our homes, such as by harvesting rainwater with water butts, as has been mentioned, and reusing grey water, which can reduce the risk of flooding, reduce water bills and, ultimately, limit the amount of water added to the system. We can encourage our families, friends and constituents to be mindful of the impact that incorrect disposal down the drain can cause.
The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) referenced the subject of wet wipes. I agree with her, and I would be delighted to meet with her to explain some of the progress that my Department is making on reducing or banning plastics in wet wipes. I thank her for the work she has done in this area.
I have created a gravel garden at home on what was previously non-permeable concrete. After core drilling down, adding organic matter and planting the right plant in the right place, it is now a beautiful area, attracting pollinators and invertebrates. It has also reduced the likelihood of my house flooding.
These ideas are just some of the simple steps that can be taken in addition to the £56 billion that this Government are requiring water companies to invest. We will not hesitate to use all options for robust enforcement action against breaches of storm overflow, which can include criminal prosecution by the Environment Agency. Water companies must clean up their act, and this Government will not hesitate to hold them to account. I will now conclude my remarks to allow time for my very effective and hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle to respond.
Thank you, Ms Elliott, for chairing us so efficiently. I thank the Minister for the responses she has given. I thank the other two Front-Bench speakers, the hon. Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), and all the other colleagues who have come forward with their ideas. With so many ideas having been put forward, would it be possible for the Minister’s Department to collate those in its response, so that we get a full response?
The hon. Member for Leeds North West asked whether we in East Sussex are satisfied. We are never satisfied in East Sussex! That is what keeps us here. My neighbours —my hon. Friends the Members for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) and for Lewes (Maria Caulfield)—and I are in a car. It is the East Sussex car and we will continue to drive it.
I will say this to the hon. Member for Leeds North West: I could give him £56 billion-worth of reasons why I am happier, because this Government are the first to do something about it. No other Governments have. We should all encourage the Government for that.
The hon. Member for Leeds North West is right that I did vote with him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne). However, we were not voting to end discharging, as has been put out on social media—not at all. It was just discharge at certain levels. Nobody who voted the other way was doing anything but voting for improvements for the first time. It pains me to see some of the abuse that goes on. We are not campaigners here. We can work effectively together for all of our constituents’ sake to make a better environment. All I would hope is for us to stick with the facts and the ideas and be nicer to each other and to our waterways.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered sewage discharges.